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FIFA 2018 WORLD CUP: GROUP B OVERVIEW

ASIAN PRIDE

IRAN

Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Ashkan Dejagah
Nickname: Team Melli
Kit: Home – white; Away – red.
Cup Best Record: First round 1978, 1998, 2006, 2014

Squad:
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis ), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo, Portugal)

Defenders: Ramin Rezaeian (KV Oostende, Belgium), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Al Saad, Qatar), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal ), Seyed Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny, Russia), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal)

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm, Russia), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens, Greece), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest, England), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos, Greece) Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Ali Gholizadeh (Saipa) Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos, Greece)

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ, Netherlands), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds FK, Sweden), Mahdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa, Qatar), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan, Russia) Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen, Netherlands)
(Teams have until June 4 to finalise the 23 man squad)

Road to World Cup:
Iran were the second team after Brazil to book their place in the Finals. They were drawn with Oman, Turkmenistan, Guam and India in their opening qualification round.

The top ranked Asian team qualified for the final qualifying unbeaten. They again breezed through the final stage, again unbeaten, ahead of South Korea.

The team did not concede a single goal until the 10th and final qualification match against Syria. With their qualification already confirmed, they drew the final match 2-2 against Syria.

This will be Iran’s fifth appearance but except for a 2-1 victory over USA at the 1998 Finals, have been unable to get past any other later opponents.

 

Player to watch

ALIREZA JAHANBAKHSH
Date of Birth: August 11, 1993 (age 24 years)
Place of Birth: Jirandeh, Iran
Height: 1.8m
Club: AZ Alkmaar (#7 / Forward)

Alireza has been revelation for his club in the Dutch Eredivisie. His 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar ensured that he would be the first Asian player to become a top scorer in a major European league.

The feat is all the more remarkable considering that the 24 year old plays as a winger for the club.

He has been a regular for the Iranian international sides, representing his country in the Under-20 and Under-23 before being drafted into the senior squad in 2013.

He was a member of the Iranian team at the 2014 Finals but has picked up plenty of experience over the last four years to make a better impact this time around.

The Iranian star has been compared to their legendary player Mehdi Mahdavikia and is as a naturally technically gifted player who is able to use both feet.

Team assessment:
While the goal scoring feat of Alireza has given much needed bite upfront, he is not the only player capable of giving opposing teams some horrid time.

Sardar Azmoun who plays for Rubin Kazan in Russia is touted as another player who could also make a difference for Iran up-field. His sudden bursts of acceleration and aerial ability makes him dangerous at the goalmouth.

They also have other options upfront including Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds FK), Mahdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos) and Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen). But with the form shown by Alireza and Sardar, the others may not even get a chance to start the games.

While their attacking prowess is decent enough to trouble the best of teams, Iran can also rely on their miserly defence.

But as luck would have it, Iran were drawn in the same group as Portugal, Spain and Morocco.

Carlos Queiroz has moulded a strong side, but the cruel draw could see them being denied of progressing further.
Queiroz, the former Real Madrid and Portuguese coach, would certainly have plenty up on his sleeves to upstage Iran’s rivals.

 

INTO THE LION’S DEN

MOROCCO

Coach: Herve Renard
Captain: Medhi Benatia
Nickname: The Atlas Lions
Kit: To be confirmed
Cup Best Record: Second round 1986

Squad
Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger)

Defenders: Medhi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir), Badr Benoun (Raja Casablanca), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (LOSC)

Midfielders: Mbark Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke 04)

Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (Saint Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax)

Road to World Cup:
This year’s Finals will only Morocco’s first appearance since 1998.

Herve Renard’s side did not concede a single goal as they finished unbeaten to top their Group and qualify for the Finals from Africa.

Having come through a tough group that included Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali, the Northern African side are now in another tough Finals group.

Ironically, Morocco’s 3-1 win over Portugal in 1986 was their first ever win in the World Cup Finals.

Player to watch

HAKIM ZIYECH
Date of Birth: March 19, 1993 (age 25 years)
Place of Birth: Dronten, Netherlands
Height: 1.8m
Club: Ajax Amsterdam (#10 Midfielder)

Hakim Ziyech, who plays for Dutch giants Ajax, has scored eight goals in his 15 appearance for Morocco.

Ziyech was eligible to represent Morocco or the Netherlands. He even received his first call up to the senior Ducth team in May 2015.

However, in September the same year, he decided to play for Morocco and made his debut against Ivory Coast a month later.

His ability from dead ball situations would be important as the attacking midfielder is a free kick specialist.

The playmaker is expected to join either Everton or Liverpool after the Cup Finals.

Team assessment:
Coach Herve Renard has moulded a defensively strong squad, that their African rivals could not break down in the qualifiers.

The team was victorious against Serbia and Uzbekistan in their two friendly matches this year and puts them in the right frame of mind.

Central defender Mehdi Benatia has forged a strong partnership in defence with Karim El Ahmadi and the two have been instrumental in marshalling a tight Moroccan defence.

With Khalid Boutaib, who plays for local club Malatyaspor, finally settling down as the teams main goal poacher, Morocco will be looking to an upset or two in the group.

Perhaps the one weakness that the team has is that while it is an experienced side, a number of their key players are past 30 and fitness will be an issue against the hard running opponents.

Morocco will be looking for an opening win against Iran that would settle their nerves as Renard plots the downfall of at least one the European giants – Portugal or Spain, in the group.

 

FAITH IN CAPTAIN MARVEL

PORTUGAL

Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Nickname: Selecao
Kit: Home – Red and green, Away – All white
Cup Best Record: Third place 1966

Squad
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon).

Defenders: Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mario Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto), Ruben Dias (Benfica)

Midfielders: Adrien Silva (Leicester), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), Joao Mario (West Ham), Joao Moutinho (Monaco), Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv), William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon)

Forwards: Andre Silva (AC Milan), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas)

Road to World Cup: A 2-0 win over Switzerland in their final group qualifying match ensured the Portuguese qualified for the Finals.

Both Portugal and Switzerland had finished level on points but Portugal qualified by virtue of their better goal difference.

Ronaldo with 15 goals and Andre Silva with 9 goals were the top goal-scorers in the group competition for Portugal.

Portugal were beaten by the Swiss in their opening qualifying match, which their captain Cristiano Ronaldo missed through injury.

They won all their remaining matches as did the Swiss, and the final group match turned out to be the tie-breaker.

The second place finish meant Switzerland had to take on Northern Ireland in a playoff to earn their Finals berth.

Player to watch
CRISTIANO RONALDO
Date of Birth: February 5, 1985 (age 33 years)
Place of Birth: Funchal, Portugal
Height: 1.87m
Club: Real Madrid (#7 Forward)

Captain Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly the player everyone will be looking to stop in Russia.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has been in devastating form for Real Madrid in 2018.

Madrid failed to win the La Liga this year, but the speedy striker has notched up 44 goals this seasons in all club competitions.

His record for Portugal is also unmatched, 81 goals from 149 outings.

The 33-year-old star was stretchered off injured in Portugal’s UEFA European Championships final win two years ago. But, who could forget his intense encouragement from the bench to spur his team on.

Team assessment

Renato Sanchez and Nani, who were both key players in Portugal’s Euro win, have been left out of the squad this time around. That has not changed the structure and the Portuguese style of play.

However, over dependence on Ronaldo is a weakness that the Portuguese side must overcome. The team has struggled in the past when Ronaldo was not available and there is no doubt that they would continue to struggle if it happens at the Finals.

The Selacao have lost twice in recent years with an injured Ronaldo not playing.

However, the side can take comfort that they had finally discarded their chokers tag after their Euro success.

Fernando Santos, who took over the helms as coach in 2014, has moulded a team that is not only mentally strong but are also capable of winning the Cup for the first time.

Portugal will also be vulnerable in the defence despite having the experience of Pepe. At 35, he will be one of the older defensive players in the competition, as it case with his defensive teammates Bruno Alves (36) and Jose Fonte (34).

 

TIKI-TAKA BACK IN STYLE

SPAIN

Coach: Julen Lopetegui
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Nickname: La Roja
Kit: Home – red and yellow, Away – white and red.
Cup Best Record: Winners 2010

Squad
Goalkeepers: Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao), David De Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli)

Defenders: Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Nacho (Real Madrid), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)

Midfielders: Isco (Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Koke (Atletico Madrid)

Forwards: Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Rodrigo (Valencia), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid)

Road to World Cup: Following their group stage exits at the 2014 World Cup and the European championships two years later, the former world champions have regrouped.

Despite holding the Spaniards to a 1-1 draw at home, Italy could not stop the Spaniards from qualifying at the top of Europe’s Group G qualifiers.

Spain won all their remaining nine matches including a 3-0 whitewash of the Italians.

They scored a massive 36 goals but conceded only a three en-route to qualifying to the Finals.

Player to watch
ANDRES INIESTA
Date of Birth: May 11, 1984 (age 34 years)
Place of Birth: Fuentealbilla, Spain
Height: 1.71m
Club: Vissel Kobe (#8 Midfield)

The World Cup is set to be Andres Iniesta’s swansong. The former Barcelona stalwart signed with Japanese club Vissel Kobe earlier this month.

The experienced midfielder is a natural leader and has been a pillar of strength in the midfield for both his former club and Spain.

It was his goal with four minute remaining that saw Spain defeat the Netherlands for the World Cup in 2010.

Iniesta made his international debut in 2001, helping Spain win the UEFA European Under-16 championships and will be looking to end his career with a second World Cup.

The 34-year-old Iniesta may not get as much play time as in the past, but his presence will give the Spaniards the much needed edge.

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Team assessment
Spain under the managerial reigns of Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque perfected the Tiki-Taka style of short passing and movement in football at the international level.

Current coach Julen Lopetegui has not discarded the style, despite Spain’s failure at major competitions in recent years.

The ease they qualified for the Finals this time, coupled with their demolition of Italy has raised Spaniard expectations again.

The well-oiled midfield engine with the experienced Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and David Silva will be again expected to steal the march on their rivals.

With Diego Costa and Marco Asensio leading the charge upfront, Spain can dream of making it to the final.

Twenty-two year old Asensio has delivered some spectacular goals for Real Madrid this season and is likely to play a big role for Spain.

The La Roja’s are in a tough group and will need to be wary of Morocco, who could derail their hopes of making it to the next round. However, the crucial match for them will be against European rivals Portugal.

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